Singapore — While members on both sides of the aisle opened the first debate of the 14th Parliament of Singapore with notable arguments, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wide-ranging speech on Wednesday (Sept 2) has been dubbed the speech of the week by several observers.
Mr Lee, who has been at the helm of the nation for 16 years, spoke about how the Government has been dealing with the upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Assuring Singaporeans that the country will shine once again, the PM also covered the Government’s approach to social safety nets and foreign worker policies.
Mr Lee also spoke about the future of politics in Singapore, in his speech which came less than two months after the 2020 General Election in which an unprecedented 10 seats were won by the opposition. Asserting that his team is different than that of his predecessors, Mr Lee said that his team will take an “open and constructive” approach while calling on the opposition to also step up.
Asserting that the PAP is “inextricably linked with Singapore’s founding, its history and development” and that this is part of why the party has won every election since independence, he said that the “sacred mission” and “special responsibility” is to “keep on doing its best for Singapore, and keep Singapore working in this unique way”.
Read his speech in full here:
“This year, we opened Parliament sooner than we usually do after a general election, because we have urgent business dealing with Covid-19 and the economy.
Covid-19 has caused a massive upheaval in our lives. After eight gruelling months, we have stabilised our situation. But it has taken a tremendous effort to get here.
From the very beginning, when Covid-19 hit us, our overriding consideration was to protect the lives of Singaporeans. Many countries talked about flattening the infection curve, of letting the disease burn through the population until herd immunity developed.
But that would have meant many Singaporeans getting ill, and perhaps thousands dying, especially the old and vulnerable. We were determined, right from the very beginning, not to go down that route. We did our utmost to contain the outbreak and keep Singaporeans safe.
This meant mobilising all our national resources. We built up contact tracing and testing capabilities, so that once we detected a new case or cluster, we could immediately isolate them and their close contacts, before they could infect others.
Today, we can do about 20,000 laboratory tests a day and with pooled testing, that means we are able to test several times that number of persons.
We expanded our healthcare system significantly. We more than doubled our ICU capacity, in case we were swamped with gravely ill Covid-19 cases, like in Wuhan, or Milan or New York.
We set up temporary community care and isolation facilities at the Singapore Expo, Changi Exhibition Centre, PSA Tanjong Pagar Terminal, old schools and SAF camps, where we could accommodate and treat patients with mild symptoms. In total, we created more beds than all our acute hospitals put together, all within a few weeks.
To handle the migrant worker dormitories, where we had most of our Covid-19 cases, we mobilised the SAF and the Home Team. They did a magnificent job in the most testing circumstances, ensuring the well-being of some 300,000 migrant workers, taking care of their health and welfare, and keeping them, as well as our general population, safe.
Implementing the Circuit Breaker in April was a very big move. We knew that it would cause extensive social and economic disruption, and demand major sacrifices from Singaporeans. But Cabinet decided we had to go ahead, to slow down the infection rate, and get things firmly under control — buy us time. Fortunately, we timed the Circuit Breaker right, and luckily it worked.
Each of these operations was huge, and all of them had to be done in parallel. Thanks to the heroic efforts of many unsung heroes, working quietly behind the scenes, we have got here today.
Judging by the health outcomes, we have done well, so far. Our fatality rate and absolute numbers is one of the lowest in the world. New infections in our community are down to just a handful a day. Fewer than 100 patients remain in hospital. This has given us the confidence to re-open our economy and society, gradually and carefully.
Of course, our Covid-19 response was not without shortcomings. Covid-19 has severely tested every government in the world. No country has been perfect in its pandemic response. Some have done better than the rest, like South Korea and New Zealand. But even for them, the fight continues, with new cases surfacing as they open up again.
With hindsight, we would certainly have done some things differently. For example, I wish we had known earlier that people with Covid-19 were infectious even when they were asymptomatic — did not show any symptoms. Then, when we brought Singaporeans back home from all over the world in March, we would have quarantined all of them earlier, instead of only those returning from certain countries; so that the virus did not spread to their family members, or their colleagues and friends.
We would have tested all of them before releasing them from quarantine, whether or not they showed any symptoms, instead of assuming that no symptoms meant no infection.
We would also have recommended that everyone to wear face masks sooner than we did. But at the time, we took the best available scientific advice. Once the WHO recognised that asymptomatic transmission was a major problem, we changed our policy, and distributed face masks to everyone.
We would also have acted more aggressively and sooner on the migrant worker dormitories. We knew that communal living in the dorms posed an infection risk. Communal living in any form poses risks — on board ships, in army camps, in student hostels, nursing homes. We stepped up precautions. For a time, these seemed adequate. But then bigger clusters broke out in the dorms, which threatened to overwhelm us.
All this is wisdom after the fact. We must learn from these errors, and do better the next time.
But in the fog of war, it is not possible always to make the perfect decisions. Yet we have to decide and move. We cannot afford to wait. The key is to watch things closely, learn from experience, and adapt our responses promptly as new information emerges and as the situation changes.
Because of the scale and complexity of our operations, there have inevitably been some rough edges. For example, now that we have cleared the dorms, we are helping the migrant workers resume work, especially in the construction industry. But this has to be done safely, because the risk of cases re-emerging is still there and it is a complicated exercise.
I know we have made things more difficult and burdensome for employers, especially the contractors and sub-contractors. They have found it frustrating to deal with all the new rules, approvals and inspections, even as they try to get their businesses up and running again.
But I hope they understand that we are doing our best to smooth things out for them, and are doing all this in order to keep our people safe. It is better that we make these measures work and get businesses to operate safely, than to suffer a new outbreak and have to shut down again.
Overall, we have been able to deal with Covid-19 only because the public service, the political leadership, our businesses, and the Singapore public have worked closely together, each doing their part, and more.
In the public service, the officials, ministries and agencies have worked tirelessly, building new capabilities on the fly, and stepping up to do things way beyond their normal scale or scope. Without a high-quality, dedicated, and adaptable public service, we could not have carried out all these major operations.
The political leadership has also played a role, to define the priorities, make the major decisions, to direct the civil servants implementing these decisions, win public support for the measures, and take responsibility for them. For example, whether to impose a circuit breaker, what activities to restrict, which businesses to keep open, whether to close schools or reopen them.
We explained these decisions to the public, at frequent press conferences, video addresses and in Parliament, so that Singaporeans understood what we were trying to do, and what each of us, individually, had to do. These are the responsibilities of the ministers, and ultimately, of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Without political leadership, the public service alone could not have done their job.
Businesses came forward, also, to do sterling national service. They put their people to work furiously on solutions, often going well beyond their business mission. They set up mask production lines, constructed Community Care Facilities, built up testing capacity, scoured the world for test equipment, test kits and reagents, and designed booths to swab patients safely, and much more. Their contributions were a vital complement to what the government agencies were doing.
Our Covid-19 response also depended critically on Singaporeans working together, and giving the government their trust and support. They understood the need for tough and painful measures, and complied with them. Many Singaporeans’ lives have been severely affected, but they have borne the difficulties calmly and stoically. They had confidence that the government would see them through the crisis and beyond.
Many volunteered to take part in the Covid-19 operations, sometimes on the frontline, and also in the community efforts to help others through these tough times. I am very grateful for their cooperation and their support. Their support will remain crucial as we continue the fight to keep Singaporeans safe.
The situation is currently stable, but we must not let our guard down. A recent Straits Times survey showed that almost half of the respondents were weary of the safety measures. The irony is that the more successful we are in keeping cases low, the more people wonder whether all these painful measures are necessary.
I recently received an email from a university student. His socialising had been disrupted. He complained that our reaction to Covid-19 was “one of the greatest overreactions to a public health issue”. As proof, he pointed out that our hospital systems were far from overwhelmed. He said that instead, we should let young Singaporeans “do us the service of achieving herd immunity”. You only have to look at the situation in other cities that have let this happen, to imagine how this could have turned out for us.
The Covid-19 virus remains as infectious and potent as it was before. This has not changed. What has changed is that we have taken measures and we have built up our capabilities to contain it. If we relax these measures now, because the numbers have come down, we will have a resurgence. Just look at Europe and many other places in the world.
Covid-19 will not be our last public health crisis. Sars was 17 years ago, in 2003. After Sars, we knew that sooner or later another novel pathogen would appear, and pose a threat to humanity. We had H1N1, which was highly infectious, but fortunately turned out to be relatively mild. Then there has been Ebola, but we escaped it because it was confined mainly in some African countries. Next, there was the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers), but fortunately that is not so transmissible, and we have been lucky not to have had any cases here, although the Koreans had. They had an outbreak. They learnt painful lessons from it and the lessons served them well when Covid-19 came.
Scientists talk about Disease X being overdue – a new disease, unknown, that is highly infectious, deadly, and mutates easily. So when Covid-19 appeared, people asked whether this was Disease X. Covid-19 has been a disaster for the world, but it is not Disease X. It is, by far, not the worst new disease that can befall mankind.
But it is only a matter of time before Disease X happens. So we had better learn from Covid-19 how to deal with a pandemic, and be as ready as we can, when a worse one befall us. We should build up our resilience, instincts and preparations, so that when Disease X comes one day, we will be prepared.
Even as we manage the immediate situation, we also must look forward, and prepare for life after Covid-19. As the President said in her speech, we are headed into a very different world. What must we rethink and reinvent, so that Singapore can continue to be successful in this brave new world?
Members have touched on several topics already in this debate, including social safety nets and foreign worker policies. In times of economic uncertainty, it is natural for people to be anxious about these two issues. So let me give you my perspective, and explain to Singaporeans what we intend to do in these areas. Then, I will talk about the future of our politics in Singapore, which underpins how we will manage and respond to all these different issues.
Social safety nets
Let me start with social safety nets. Social safety nets are there to protect the vulnerable in our society, and ensure that everyone has full access to opportunities to improve our lives. They also give people the confidence and assurance that if some bad luck trips them up in life, society will be there to break their fall, and help them pick themselves up again.
In our early decades of nationhood, we did not need extensive social safety nets. We had high GDP and income growth. Jobs were aplenty for a young population. The economy was buoyant, unemployment after the first few years was very low. If you lost your job, a new one was just around the corner. In fact, sometimes people were happy to be retrenched because you collected your retrenchment benefits and then you went into a new job straightaway. You get paid twice.
So, we invested heavily in our social infrastructure – universal education, basic healthcare, public housing and this improved everyone’s standard of living and allowed all to benefit from the country’s progress. More importantly, it levelled everyone up, giving them the means to improve their lives through their own efforts.
Now, we have moved into a different phase of development. Our economy is maturing. Incomes are growing less rapidly. There is a higher premium on specialised skills and education. As a result, when someone loses his job, especially as a mature worker, it is harder for them to move to another job, especially across different sectors.
Therefore, in the last 15 years or so, we shifted our approach, and progressively strengthened our social safety nets. We introduced many schemes in these last 15 years. ComCare in 2005, Workfare in 2007, Silver Support in 2016. These schemes and many others are targeted at the lower income, and those who have fallen on hard times. They supplement their wages and CPF contributions, so that the recipients gain both current income and also retirement security.
As we expanded our social programmes, we have also extended the coverages of other schemes and subsidies beyond the lower income, to include middle income households too. For example, with pre-school subsidies and bursaries for universities and other post-secondary institutions, which almost all our students now attend. We also gave special support to our Pioneer and Merdeka Generations to help them see through their retirement years. Altogether, we now spend three times as much on social programmes every year as we did 15 years ago.
These are all peacetime measures but when Covid-19 hit us, they could not be enough. So we implemented multiple emergency measures for Covid-19. The Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), Self-Employed Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), Covid-19 Support Grant and now the Jobs Growth initiative. We had to draw on our past reserves to fund them. These are emergency measures. They are crucial for now, but they cannot continue indefinitely. We have to start thinking about what comes after them, about the level of social support we will return to, after Covid-19 is over.
In the new normal, we fully expect more economic uncertainty and turbulence. And the longer term trends of an ageing population and rising healthcare costs remain unchanged. We will certainly need to strengthen social support for our people, during and after their working lives. How will we do this? Several ideas have been raised, including in this House, in this debate. The government is not ideologically opposed to any proposed solution. Our approach has always been pragmatic and empirical. Make the best use of our resources to meet the needs of different groups in our society, in a targeted manner. Because if we help everyone equally, then we are not giving more help to those who need it most.
Take for example, older workers. Older workers are valuable and experienced. Having been in the workforce for longer, they tend to draw higher salaries than younger workers. But their skills may be less current. If they lose their jobs, they find it harder to find another similar job, particularly at the same pay, so they are at greater risk of long-term unemployment.
Solutions like unemployment insurance can offer older workers transient relief, at best. But retraining and upskilling older workers will enable employers to continue finding value in them, and to be less likely to make them redundant. If the older worker does get retrenched, with these skills he or she can find a new job more readily. This is a structural solution that helps older workers get their careers back on track and feel that he is making a worthwhile contribution. The best unemployment insurance is in fact the assurance of another job.
Another group is the low-wage workers. They are the most vulnerable ones in our workforce. They worry about the day-to-day, and how to make ends meet. They often feel stuck in their jobs while others around them seem to be doing better. We need to support them to improve their lives, so that they can catch up and narrow the gap with the rest of society.
The Workfare Income Supplement has made a material difference to them and we have been enhancing the Workfare scheme every now and again. In this downturn we made a special payment under the Workfare scheme because we want to help those who are most in need and we do not want to put the burden on employers. The government takes it on. The Progressive Wage Model has also helped them and we will extend the Progressive Wage Model as you have heard from Minister Josephine Teo yesterday to more sectors over time.
The government’s efforts, supported by unions and employers, have worked. Older workers are staying in the workforce longer. Over the last five years, real wages of our bottom quintile have consistently grown faster than median wages and that clearly shows that our approaches are working.
But we know greater challenges lie ahead. We need to do more, and we are ready to do more. The question is: What more will we need to do? What is the best way to do it? We should take some time to assess the landscape after Covid-19, to see how things unfold, and what specific problems develop. We must keep an open mind, as we build and improve on the systems we have, and consider solutions that can work in our context. It is not just floating ideas like minimum wage or unemployment insurance, but assessing their impact carefully. Who wins and who loses within the workforce? How will our SMEs or the public be affected? We must identify pragmatic solutions which will make a real and sustainable difference, and give people justified assurance that when they need help they will get the help that is relevant to them. It must not create new problems in the process, for example, by eroding our spirit of self-reliance.
One permanent imperative as we think about new schemes is to keep our programmes fiscally sustainable. As a matter of principle, our social safety nets should be paid for out of current revenues. We should not draw down on what we have inherited, nor should we mortgage the future of our children. When our founding generation were building up our reserves, they never asked themselves whether they had too much savings. We were in our early days of nationhood. Things were so uncertain, and no one knew what the next day would bring.
Compared to today, incomes then were low but it was never a question of how much reserves would be enough. The question was whether we could steadily squirrel away a bit more in our reserves, year after year, decade after decade, as protection for a rainy day. After several generations of frugal prudence, we have built up significant reserves and because we have taken such an approach consistently, decade after decade in this enormous monster storm. We have been able to draw on past reserves and fund our essential Budget packages and help people on a very big scale.
Now the opposition says: Show me how much we have in the reserves, before I decide whether I support your Budget and tax plans. Let us have a look at the money. Basically they are asking: I have something in the bank already, how much of that can I touch? This was not the attitude of our forefathers, the founders who are building for the future. But the attitude of inheritors who think they have come into a fortune, and want to consume the fruits of their predecessors’ labours. This is fundamentally the wrong approach. How much reserves are enough, or too much? There can be no good answer to this question.
The future is unknowable. We have no way to tell what may hit us from out of the blue. Just look at the last nine months. In January, before Covid-19, MOF was preparing Budget 2020, and we were quite confident. We thought we could meet our current commitments, put aside funds for the long term, to offset the GST increase and fund climate change defences and many other things, and still expect to have something left over at the end of that term of government to add to our past reserves. But just a few months after that, we are down more than $70 billion. We have had to draw heavily on past reserves to fund four-five Budget packages and explain to the President why this has been necessary.
Therefore, we should not think of ourselves as inheritors spending what we have been lucky enough to be endowed with. Rather we should take the attitude of founders even though we may be third, fourth, or fifth generation in reality but we should think of ourselves as founders for the future generations. Whatever reserves we have, big or small, let us not think of touching them in normal times. They are our rainy day fund, our “棺材本”. In Chinese it sounds better because it is a “coffin fund”.
Every year, we live within our means; and whenever we are able to, we add a bit more to the rainy day fund, to make ourselves a bit more secure for when it really pours. That is the way to build Singapore for the long term, and secure the future for our children and grandchildren.
A second area that we will review is our foreign worker and work pass policies. Minister Josephine Teo spoke about these yesterday, but I want to give my take on this too. This is not a new issue. But in an economic downturn, this issue becomes sharper. It is the case not just in Singapore. All around the world, anti-foreigner sentiment is on the rise because people are feeling worried and insecure about their futures.
Many Singaporeans are feeling anxious and pressured about their jobs. Their sense that foreigners are competing with them for jobs is palpable. Some feel unfairly treated, when they see foreigners replacing them or taking up good jobs ahead of them. These feelings are completely understandable.
Singapore is a small country. Our population is small, it is not growing very fast. Soon it is going to level off. To grow our economy, we have no choice but to top up with foreign workers and work pass holders. Yet, we cannot just throw open our doors, nor have we done so. We only have 3.5 million Singaporean Citizens, and half a million PRs. In South-east Asia, there are 650 million people, in Asia, China and India alone add up to nearly three thousand million people. All can potentially come in, many would love to come. Without tight controls, we would be overwhelmed.
That is why we have our foreign worker policies. They help us control the inflow and ultimately ensure that the foreign workers who do come in, add to the workforce in Singapore, rather than substitute for them, and benefit Singaporeans rather than hurting them.
How we control the flow depends on the type of foreign worker. At the lower level, we have got work permits. We use a mix of levies and quotas, we call them dependency ratios, to directly control their price and quantity. It is a rough and ready approach, but it helps us deal with the large numbers and limit them effectively.
In the middle levels, we have the S Pass. Now it is not just a matter of numbers, but we also want to look at the quality. Because the S Pass are competing with people who are graduating from our polytechnics – diploma holders, and slightly above that. We want to make sure there is a balance, so the S Pass still has levies and quotas, but we also impose other requirements on minimum salary, and on qualifications.
Then for the upper levels, the Professionals, Management, Executives and Technical (PMETs) workers, we have the Employment Pass. Here, the key issue is about controlling the quality, and making sure the people we bring in are those who are able to contribute to Singapore. So we have been using salary benchmarks as a proxy, along with other qualifying criteria.
While the perception of foreign competition is sharper during this downturn, actually both the Employment Pass and S Pass holders have been coming down since Covid-19 this year. But we still have to make adjustments to our work pass schemes. Because there is now more slack in the job market, but also because over time, the education levels, capabilities and incomes of our local workforce have gone up. More Singaporeans are now ready and available to take up PMET jobs. And in fact, more have done so – the proportion of PMETs in the workforce has grown steadily from 40 per cent 20 years ago, to close to 60 per cent today. The purpose of the Employment Pass scheme is to top up at the higher end of these PMET jobs. Therefore, we need to tighten the EP qualifying criteria. That is why, at the lower levels of the Employment Pass holders, the proportion of Singaporeans is higher, and at the higher levels, the proportion the Singaporeans is slightly lower, because we are deliberately bringing in Employment Pass holders who are at the higher level and can contribute to us. It makes sense.
We need to tighten up the EP qualifying criteria and this is what we have been doing. We raised the EP entry floor from $3,600 to $3,900 in May this year. MOM just announced last week a further tightening to $4,500, with a higher floor of $5,000 for financial services. We are raising the S Pass salary floor too. We have to pay attention to market conditions and adjust at the right pace, but this is the correct long-term direction.
But I know Singaporeans are not just concerned about the macro overall numbers, but also at the micro individual level, they are also concerned about fair treatment: That Singaporeans are being considered fairly for jobs, for promotions, or when it comes time for retrenchments. There is no comfort in knowing that the total numbers are not too many, if personally we feel that we have been discriminated against at the workplace, or that the EP holder working beside us somehow has an inside track because of old school ties or some other personal connections.
That is why we have the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep), where Singaporeans who feel unfairly treated can seek redress. We also have the Fair Consideration Framework, which we are tightening further, as you have heard. We are working with unions to make sure any retrenchments are done fairly, and no company is retrenching a Singaporean only to fill the same post with a foreigner, without very good justification.
The government takes this issue of fairness very seriously. In evaluating EP and S Pass applications, we take into account whether the employer has kept up support of local PMETs in their employment, and has been responsive to government efforts to help them recruit and train more Singaporean PMETs, or conversely, whether the employer has discriminated against qualified Singaporeans. This has always been the government policy, but we particularly want to emphasise these considerations now, in these uncertain times, to remind all employers to play their part in building up their Singaporean workforce, their Singaporean core.
One specific red flag is when we see a company that has an over-concentration of a single foreign nationality in its ranks, especially when compared to other companies in the same sector. This concentration, if it is unchecked, can cause social resentment and workplace problems. It makes it harder for the company to blend into and be accepted by our multiracial society. They stick out. It is a lump unable to be digested, integrated. It suggests that the company has not really taken root in Singapore. It can cause problems within the company too, because employees of other nationalities — Singaporean or others — may find it harder to fit in, to take pride in their work, and see a future for themselves in the firm. Therefore, when that happens, we ask the firm to please relook at their hiring practices. Most companies are responsive, and work with us in good faith. In fact, many global companies understand that a diverse workforce is to their advantage, and have explicit HR policies on this.
The issue of concentration can easily be played up, and we know there are some people who are stirring this up. For example, a Facebook page posted a wefie of DBS CEO Piyush Gupta with a room full of Indian employees last September. It was captioned “Eye sight test: Find a Singaporean or Chinese in this DBS photo”. The picture resurfaced recently, and went viral, which just shows that during tough times, this subject is more neuralgic. Last September was a different world. Many people took offence, and got worked up, and berated DBS, flamed them. But it was fake news. Why? That picture was taken in India, where DBS had opened a new office, not in Singapore. The person who put up the post surely knew this, yet he irresponsibly misused the wefie to insinuate that DBS in Singapore was not being fair to Singaporeans, and damage was done.
The government will always be on the side of Singaporeans. What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners, if it does not benefit Singaporeans? Why would we want to do that? Ultimately, our aim is to grow the economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living. Foreign workers and work pass holders help us to achieve this. By being open to talent from around the world, we create more opportunities for ourselves.
Singapore has succeeded by being an international hub, tapping talents worldwide, and serving a global market. So even as we adjust our work pass policies, we must be careful not to give the wrong impression that we are now closing up, and no longer welcoming foreigners. Such a reputation would do us great harm, and we have to watch this, because we are being watched. The Financial Times had an article just a couple of days ago, to say, Singapore the mood is changing and, we are turning inwards. There have been articles in the South China Morning Post a few months ago, there are articles circulating on the Internet. The grapevine buzzes. And we have to do the right thing for ourselves, but we must also avoid sending the wrong signals to others.
It may surprise you, but even in this depressed economic climate, where some companies are consolidating and laying off workers, many investment projects want to come to Singapore. In fact this year, EDB’s pipeline is higher than the pipeline was last year.
There is a reason for this. All over Asia and in the world, societies are under stress, and politics is in flux. In places where investors already have regional headquarters and projects, they are rethinking the merits of their locations, and looking for alternatives. Because the situation changes. You set up your headquarters there, there is some political shift, you look at the sky, it does not look the same as before. You start thinking, “Where can I go?”
Investors starting new projects are also anxiously scanning the globe, searching for the right place where they can safely make a commitment now. Companies are seeking a safe harbour, where the politics is stable, there is rule of law, the people are hardworking and united, and where the country will come through the pandemic safely, and have a bright future. We take no joy in the troubles in the world, but it is a fact that in a troubled world, Singapore is, one of the few trusted countries, that stands out and we must guard that reputation zealously.
Indeed, EDB and MAS tell me that many companies have expressed interest in coming to Singapore. Some projects you would have heard about. For example, Hyundai Motor has just announced plans to set up a major facility here to undertake R&D and develop future mobility technologies. But there are others yet that have not been announced, or are still under wraps, are being discussed, and are hopefully on the way.
I cannot tell you these confidential discussions, but I can give you a small peek. For example, a pharmaceutical company is planning to build a facility in Singapore to manufacture vaccines. Another company specialising in pandemic risk insurance wants to set up shop here. These are opportunities which are directly coming out of the crisis. We want vaccine plants here, so we can get access to vaccines when they are available.
We want to build up our financial sector and pandemic risk insurance is now something on people’s minds, and they are looking for a safe place where they can put their insurance company, and Singapore is in the running. Do we want to turn them away? There are other companies that are coming to Singapore or looking seriously at coming to Singapore.
Several Fortune 500 firms are considering moving their regional HQs here, because of political uncertainties elsewhere. Major financial institutions want to grow their operations in Singapore too, and these include IT and backroom operations. We look at them, they are good projects, we will study them, we are conscious that IT is one of the areas where we worry about an over-concentration of foreign work pass holders. But when you get a good project like this, an IT centre for a major global bank wanting to come to Singapore, and therefore going to recruit a proportion of Singaporean IT professionals and other management staff, should we say no?
They see good prospects in Singapore, they see us as a stable base to work from. We want to talk to them to see how they can fit in here, in Singapore, to create good new jobs for Singaporeans. But for them to come here, they must feel welcome, and be allowed to bring in the talent that they need. Because we do not have the full complement of specialist engineers and other expertise for all these types of work yet.
Also, regional and global headquarters, by design, need to draw talent from around the world and to be run by international teams. That is the nature of a regional and global headquarters. The companies which have headquarters run by all one nationality — the Japanese used to be like that — they did not thrive. The American companies which had headquarters with people from all continents, they did well, and they could adapt, they had the feel of different markets, they could fit into different cultures.
If we want good companies to come to Singapore, we must be prepared to have them come and to bring Singapore that constellation of talent, to be able to operate out of Singapore, and manage activities and locations all over the world. They will employ Singaporeans too, but they cannot be staffed by Singaporeans alone. Once these companies establish themselves here, more Singaporeans will be able to take advantage of the opportunities they create, pick up the skills and knowledge and rise up the ranks.
This is how we have always done it. For example, pharmaceutical companies began to invest in Singapore 20 to 30 years ago. They started by building manufacturing plants. Later on, as these facilities grew, some of the pharma companies set up regional HQs and research labs. Like GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). GSK’s Site Director is Lim Hock Heng, a Singaporean. He joined GSK in 1992, nearly 30 years ago, as a production engineer, picked up skills and knowledge from his foreign colleagues and rose up the ranks. Today Hock Heng runs most of their Singapore sites, which manufacture key GSK products for the whole world. In other words, it is a drug which belongs to GSK, and Singapore is the one place in the world they are making it, and exporting it around the globe.
Another example is from the financial services. In the late 1980s, Singapore was recovering from a major recession, and trying hard to grow our financial centre. Several global banks came to Singapore, including Citibank. They had no shortage of staff to choose from, with tens of thousands of employees globally. But they hired Singaporeans, including Susan Kwek, who had a polytechnic diploma in computer science. They saw her potential, groomed her, rotated her through several operations and technology roles, here and in the region. Today, Susan oversees operations and technology for Citibank in Hong Kong. There are many more Singaporeans in senior positions in semi-conductors, oil and gas, and IT. If we had not welcomed these companies in the past and encouraged them to bring in global talent, Hock Heng, Susan and others would have been deprived of these opportunities. Would we have been better off?
It is not only global companies here that need foreign manpower. Local companies also need access to global talent to grow and develop. Our SMEs need skills, knowledge and expertise that they may not have in Singapore, for example to develop an external wing, and to move up the value chain. And by doing so, they too create good new jobs for Singaporeans, besides promoting entrepreneurship, and making it easier, and more attractive, to start companies in Singapore. The economic benefits of our foreign worker policies are very clear.
But there is a more fundamental question which we have to ask ourselves, and that is: What sort of society, what sort of people do we want to be? We have always been a people open to the world, welcoming others who can add value to our society, and bring the best out of us. This is our history and our ethos, from our beginnings as an open port and an immigrant nation. The Bicentennial last year reminded us of that. This generosity of spirit gives our society and economy vitality and resilience. It has made Singapore the exceptional, cosmopolitan city we are today, plugged into the global economy, and making a living by making ourselves valuable to the world. We may be under stress now, but we cannot afford to turn inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold our own in the world.
Social safety nets and foreign worker policies are just two of the many difficult issues that we will have to deal with, as our society matures. We will study them carefully, and of course debate them thoroughly, including here in Parliament. The government will lead this discussion with Singaporeans, build a political consensus around the right solutions, and move us forward. Whether we succeed depends on how well our politics work.
Singapore has achieved a high degree of political consensus on many of our social, political and economic issues. This is one major reason for our rapid progress, and one major benefit of the PAP’s dominant position. But our society is not static. Each new generation of Singaporeans is more educated, more connected to the world, and surer of themselves. Their attitudes and aspirations change too: they desire more diversity, alternative voices, and checks and balances. This trend is not new. The desire has always been there, but it is growing.
In the last General Election, many people voted for the opposition, while fully expecting that the PAP would remain in power as the government. In fact the Workers’ Party campaigned on this platform, if I am not mistaken, seeking to form a strong opposition, but explicitly not seeking to form the next government.
SM Teo told me that on the second last day of the General Election campaign, a middle-aged lady came up to him, a little agitated. She asked him: “Mr Teo, is it true? My friends tell me it is ok to vote for the opposition, because the government will still be in charge. All the programmes the government has promised, they will deliver — MRT, upgrading, new facilities, polyclinic. So do not worry — all the things will still get done, and the PAP will work even harder for you. You get everything they promised, and two persons working for you instead of one.” She was very perturbed and asked him: “Mr Teo… is that true?” Her question really was: “How can this be true?” It troubled her profoundly that she did not know how to rebut the argument, yet in her heart of hearts, she knew instinctively that something was very wrong.
The PAP will respond to these social and political trends, as we have always done. We have not stayed on top all these years by being static, but by adapting to our evolving society and changing needs. We have been assiduous in our leadership renewal. Each new generation of PAP leaders has developed their own leadership styles and their own policy priorities. They have created their own bonds with their generation of Singaporeans, to be in sync with their mood, to win their trust and support, and develop new ideas that resonate with them.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his founding generation of leaders governed Singapore in a direct, no-nonsense way. It was necessary and appropriate at the time, and Singaporeans then strongly supported Mr Lee, although today’s Singaporeans would probably consider the style hard and uncompromising. You read the old speeches — the directness, the force of the language makes you sit back and say, “Could we say that today in a different way?” The truths are the same; the presentation has to change with the zeitgeist.
Mr Goh Chok Tong and his team had a different touch. His approach was about bringing people together, and building a societal consensus on the Next Lap of Singapore’s growth. It was a contrast to Mr Lee’s approach, but it was appropriate for his generation of Singaporeans, and Mr Goh made it work.
My team and I are not like Mr Lee’s, neither are we like ESM Goh’s teams. We have found our own ways to engage with this generation of Singaporeans. We have gone through many ups and downs together over this last 16 years, adapted and changed policies to meet the new needs of the population. By now, Singaporeans all know what I am like, and how I work. They have always given me strong support. Together, we have taken Singapore another step forward.
My successors will have to do things in their own, different ways too. Establish their own standing and build their own bonds with the next generation. The 4G leaders have been doing this for some time. They are conducting the SG Together conversations now. They want to accommodate this growing desire of Singaporeans not only to be heard but to be involved.
In Parliament, with a stronger opposition presence, I expect the tone of the debate to shift. PAP ministers and MPs will have to raise their game, be prepared for sharper questioning, and defend the Government’s policies and decisions, while speaking up for their constituents. They also must be prepared for more substantive debates and engage with the opposition. I hope the opposition will also step up. Go beyond asking questions and criticising the government’s proposals, which is part of their responsibility; to go on to put up serious proposals and ideas of their own to be examined and debated, and if found meritorious, adopted; to show that they are willing and able to play their part as a loyal opposition.
For our part, the government will take an open and constructive approach. Let me explain what I mean by this bland term, “open and constructive approach”. On the specific details of policies, we can be quite relaxed about it. We will be open-minded and listen to the different voices; we can try different schemes, solutions; we will take in all constructive views and perspectives. But of course, we have to make sure that the discussions are supported by facts and logic, and informed by our context and experience.
If it is a major issue which concerns the fundamental interests of the country, the government cannot wait passively for a consensus to form. We will still have a full discussion — and in fact, an even fuller discussion. But at the end of the discussion, if there are still different views, the government will have to make the decision it judges best and take full responsibility for it. Having been elected to govern, we must govern. It is the government’s duty to make such decisions and be accountable to the people for them. Discussion is fine, but discussion must lead to action. Finally, if it is an important issue, and we are not yet entirely at one, the government has to decide “we shall go” and in the end, we put it to the voters. Voters have to decide: Do they support this or do they want something different? That is on issues.
But politics is not only about issues, but also about power. If the issue is not policies and priorities, but a challenge to the government’s fitness to govern, then the government will have to stand up and defend itself vigorously. It must put down the challenge and prove that it deserves to be the government. Otherwise, it must step aside and let another team take over.
This is how the political system is supposed to work. We have a Westminster-style democracy, modelled on the British and adapted as we have gone along. It is adversarial by design. In Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition sits on the front bench, directly opposite the Prime Minister. That is why Mr Pritam Singh is there sitting opposite me. He is not there as a supportive cheerleader, helping the government to perform better. He is there to challenge the incumbent PM and the government to point out their faults, to highlight where the government has fallen short, to keep chipping away at the government’s and the PM’s credibility, and so at the next general election, or sooner if the opportunity arises, the opposition can knock the government out of power, and take its place. I am saying this not as a criticism of any political party or anybody in Singapore, but I am saying this is how the system is designed to work.
In the British House of Commons, you have seen Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition taking on David Cameron and later, Theresa May during Prime Minister’s Question Time. He was not very successful at this, which is why he is no longer there. Now Sir Keir Starmer, the new Labour Party leader, is doing his best to show up Boris Johnson, and make his own name in the process.
In the Australian Parliament, Question Time for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his predecessors happens every day when Parliament is sitting, and often lasts more than an hour. Every encounter is a gladiatorial contest. Lots of drama and theatre, and prepared soundbites. The wittier, and more contemptuous, the better.
The British or Australian PM has to stand his ground, defend his government’s policies, and maintain psychological dominance, to show that he deserves to be the PM. If not, MPs on both sides will sense it, and so will the public, and this will influence election outcomes as well as leadership contests in their parties.
In today’s Singapore, the tone of our Parliamentary debate is less combative than in Westminster or Canberra, or indeed than the Singapore Legislative Assembly was in the early 1960s, when the Barisan Sosialis was a formidable presence in the opposition benches. Our political traditions have developed differently since then. Speeches in the chamber are more substantive, with less verbal fireworks. The opposition is generally more restrained in its style of questioning. Sometimes their questions sound like questions which could have been asked by PAP backbenchers. No doubt it helps that they know if they take a more strident tone, ministers are on top of their briefs and will be more than capable of taking them on. But that does not stop them from trying their hand and luck from time to time. Mr Low Thia Khiang was particularly skilled at this.
I listened carefully to Mr Pritam Singh on Monday, describing how he intends to perform the role of Leader of the Opposition. I applaud his tone and approach. The Government benches will do our part to work with him, to keep Parliament a constructive forum for debate.
I believe that it is good to have an adequate number of opposition MPs in Parliament. It keeps the government on its toes. It shows the public that the government has nothing to hide, and will answer all questions, however awkward. That is why we increased the minimum number of elected opposition MPs in Parliament to 12, and why in this Parliament we have two NCMPs from the Progress Singapore Party, to top up the 10 from the Workers’ Party.
But that does not mean that the more opposition MPs and the more fiery the debate in Parliament the better, or that the tone of our political debate cannot change for the worse. The adversarial dynamic that is inherent in the Parliamentary system can go wrong. We all hope that diversity will make a hundred flowers bloom. But how do we prevent diversity from producing polarisation? How do we make sure disagreement does not result in paralysis?
It has happened in so many other countries. Politics permeates every issue. Every subject becomes partisan. Even public health issues — whether to wear a mask or not becomes a partisan issue. If you wear a mask, you are a Democrat; if you do not wear a mask, you are a Republican. This is my side, and that is yours. There is no middle ground, only sides to take. There are no truths or facts, only different versions of reality — facts and equal-standing “alternative facts”! Politics becomes toxic and bitter, the country is divided, and goes into a downward spiral. If this happens to Singapore, we will not just cease being an exceptional nation. It will be the end of us. We must not go down this path.
At the most fundamental level, to make our politics work, both the government and opposition must share an overriding objective — to work for Singapore, and not just for our party or our supporters. Our debate must be based on principles and facts, and guided by shared ideals and goals. MPs must speak up for what they sincerely believe in. You are elected not just to repeat what you have heard others say, but to think on behalf of others and to make arguments which makes sense, which will benefit the interests of the people you are representing, of the voters who elected you; but to think for yourself and not just to be a mouthpiece.
We must be in politics in order to protect Singapore’s security, grow our economy and secure our future. If we do that, then there is a basis for us to manage the inherent tensions in our system, and for politics to work out productively.
Ultimately, what sort of politics Singapore has, depends on Singaporeans themselves. They have a vital responsibility to engage in the public discourse, send the right signals at the ballot box, and reward political parties that do the right thing and deliver for the people. The standards they demand of political leaders, PAP and opposition, will influence the quality of political leadership, the level of discussion and debate in Parliament. They will determine whether our politics enables us to thrive and prosper or divides and destroys us.
Speaking for the PAP, we have a special responsibility to make our system work, and provide the leadership that Singapore needs and deserves. It is a responsibility that the PAP carries but no other political party in Singapore shares to make our system work. Let me explain why. The PAP is inextricably linked with Singapore’s founding, its history and development. We built this place together with Singaporeans.
It was Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP who pledged that Singapore shall forever be a multi-racial nation on Separation Day itself — and made good on that pledge. It was Dr Goh Keng Swee and the PAP who decided on National Service and built up the SAF into the respected force that it is today. It was Mr S Rajaratnam and the PAP who penned the National Pledge, and strived to live by it every day for the last 55 years, and counting. These are among the reasons why the PAP has won every election since independence. Singaporeans have trusted us, and we have never let them down.
Last week, Ms Sylvia Lim posted a beautiful picture on her Instagram of herself with Mr Low Thia Khiang and Mr Png Eng Huat and a few others. They were dining al fresco after the opening of Parliament at what looked like a rooftop bar near City Hall. It was a vivid picture. Behind them you could see the National Gallery, Raffles Place and part of the new downtown in Marina South, brightly lit and spectacular.
In the caption, Ms Lim wrote: “What a skyline”. I thought to myself, she has paid an enormous tribute to the PAP government and the people of Singapore — my predecessors as well as my colleagues in the current government and generations of Singaporeans who worked with the PAP government to make this happen. I do not think she intended it, and therefore I appreciated it all the more. Together, we did make this happen!
How politics and government work in Singapore is quite unique. We have put enormous emphasis on the quality of government — the public service as well as the political leadership. We have gone to great lengths to recruit the best people we can find to enter politics, join the government, and serve Singapore. This quality of government, coupled with the trust and support of Singaporeans, enables us to deal with problems rationally, comprehensively and effectively.
Jean-Claude Juncker, who was Prime Minister of Luxembourg and more recently, President of the European Commission, said this about European politics and politicians: “We all know what to do, we just do not know how to get re-elected after we have done it.”
But in Singapore, the PAP government has been able to do the right thing for Singaporeans — sometimes difficult and hard things — and still get re-elected. Sometimes we pay the price in the vote, but overall, we have continued to win elections. Therefore, the government has been able to think long term, well beyond the next general election. We have no incentive to kick the can down the road, because down the road, we will very likely meet the can ourselves again. Therefore, we make plans over 50-60 years — or in the case of climate change, 100 years. As a result, the country progresses, Singaporeans benefit, and the PAP continues to win elections — so far. It is a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle. This model has worked well for Singapore. Once broken, it will be very difficult to put back together again.
Several years ago, I made a trip to a former Communist country in Europe — quite a big one. A distinguished business group hosted me to dinner — serious-minded people, interested in Singapore, some of them knowledgeable about Singapore. They asked me how the Singapore government operates, and how we have made Singapore succeed. I gave them my usual answers — our strong anti-corruption stance, our long-term planning, our unremitting efforts to promote social inclusion. My hosts looked at each other in amazement. They shook their heads and chatted away in Russian. They were familiar with how the politics in their own country worked. To them, what I described was completely unimaginable. Surely it cannot happen in this world! But it happens here in Singapore, and every one of us thinks it is just normal.
But even in Singapore, it is not normal at all. It is the result of sound politics, hard work, and the will to pull together and make Singapore a success. It is path-dependent. We have come this way, we have kept it like this. It is like being in the Garden of Eden. Things are going right, they stay right, you leave the Garden of Eden, you cannot go back. Can it continue to work like this? With more diversity and contestation, can we keep our focus on the long term, and plan and build ahead for Singapore? How long can Singaporeans vote for the opposition in some constituencies, in the expectation that somehow, somewhere else, their fellow Singaporeans will ensure the PAP is returned to power? Can we continue to get good people into politics, to maintain the quality of our ministers and MPs, and make things happen for Singapore, if more and more citizens prefer the PAP to form the government, and yet vote for another party’s candidates to be their MPs for diversity, for checks and balances? At what point does a vote for a strong opposition become a vote for a different government? Is it really true that one day if there is a change of government, a new party can run Singapore equally well, because we have such a good public service, as Mr Pritam Singh suggested on Monday?
This is like saying anybody can be the conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. These questions have no easy answers. In the nature of politics and of human societies, things can and do go wrong. Each successive generation of Singaporeans has to keep on doing its best to keep the system working right.
The PAP feels acutely its special responsibility to keep on doing its best for Singapore, and keep Singapore working in this unique way. That is our sacred mission. We will do our utmost to persuade good men and women to enter politics, to take over the torch and lead the next generation. We will fight hard to win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans and win every vote, and show Singaporeans that the PAP continues to deserve their support and trust.
Of course, there is no guarantee that even under a PAP government, Singapore will forever be successful. Now, the world is not quite the same as it used to be. Our streets and our skies are quieter.
I received a foreign visitor recently. She said she felt sad when she came through Changi Airport. It used to be bustling, crowded, full of life. Now it is deathly silent. When Changi Airport first opened in 1981, it was a coming out party for Singaporeans of that generation. We were so proud of it. When someone was flying out, the whole extended family would come to Changi Airport to see him or her off, and at the same time, take pictures with the trishaw display and the water features. I remember it fondly. I suppose it dates me. It was a dream come true.
Over the years, we expanded Terminal 1, and built T2, T3 and now T4. We built Changi up into the best airport, home to the best airline in the world. Then, we conceived and built Jewel. When Jewel opened, Singaporeans took immense pride in it. I showed it off in my National Day Rally last year, to demonstrate what we are capable of, and explains why Singaporeans can look forward to limitless possibilities for our nation. But Jewel too went dark during the Circuit Breaker. 40 years of building up our airport and airline. Covid-19 came, and all of that suddenly came to a halt.
So what now? We have survived many life and death crises before. Singapore was born from crisis. We did not know whether we could survive after Separation, and the British withdrawal East of Suez. We rode through major economic storms like the Asian Financial Crisis and the Global Financial Crisis, not knowing if we would sink or swim. But each time, we did survive, and actually came back stronger. Each time, the dire circumstances became the occasion and platform for ambition and daring. Each time, we transcended ourselves, and built again.
We should fight Covid-19 with hope in our hearts, because there is a silver lining. This searing experience will help a whole new generation of Singaporeans appreciate and treasure what we have, and what makes us an exceptional nation. We are here by dint of will and imagination. In defiance of all the odds and of all those who said we would not make it, we did. As in all the previous crises, Covid-19 will be the occasion for us to do better, emerge stronger, and become more united.
Do not doubt. Do not fear. Jewel will shine again. Changi will thrive again. SIA will be a great way to fly once more. Our economy will prosper anew. Our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fairer, ever more just and equal society.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.”
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